More 'Thor': Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston and Alan Taylor on their new Marvel adventure
The god of thunder is off to a booming start, with Disney and Marvel Studios' Thor: The Dark World surpassing pre-release tracking and breaking $100 million overseas in its first four days—and it's yet to be released in China, Japan and Italy. Opening in the U.S. on Nov. 8, this eighth film in what producer Kevin Feige—sort of the Stan Lee of Marvel Studios—first called the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" may or may not bring in box office to match last year's $1.5 billion Marvel's The Avengers and this year's $1.2 billion Iron Man 3, but its progenitor Thor (2011) scored $449 million, and if that's second-tier, it's second-tier like Pepsi.
Thor: The Dark World finds Marvel Comics' Norse-god superhero Thor (Chris Hemsworth) forced to team with his adoptive brother, the murderous trickster-god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), to save, well, the universe. A once-every-few-millennia syzygy of the "Nine Realms"—dimensions that include Earth and Asgard—is occurring, and not only is this throwing physics out of whack at the points where the realms meet, but it's giving an ancient evil, the Dark Elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), the means to undo the Big Bang.
Circumstances could be better, of course, but this does wind up reuniting Thor with astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), whom he hasn't seen since they fell for each other during his brief banishment to Earth in the first film. Now, through the workings of fate—a much nicer way of saying "really sorta contrived plot turn"—Foster has absorbed an ethereal energy that makes her a critical component of Malekith's plan.
Also returning for this sequel is Foster's unflappable intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), who for some reason remains unpaid after two years; maybe that's an in-joke about the title of Dennings' TV show, "Two Broke Girls"? And back for this third Marvel-movie appearance is Stellan Skarsgård as Foster's mentor Dr. Erik Selvig, who's understandably been traumatized by the events of The Avengers. That Thor: The Dark World plays his trauma for laughs might not have been, let's say, the most obvious choice, but then, it's not that many 62-year-olds who get to do nude scenes. Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo reprise their roles as Odin and Frigga, king and queen of Asgard and Thor and Loki's parents. Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano and Jaimie Alexander return as three of Thor's warrior friends, with Zachary Levi succeeding the first film's Joshua Dallas as their dashing comrade Fandral. And Idris Elba is back as Heimdall, the sentry of the Rainbow Bridge between worlds.
We spoke individually with stars Natalie Portman and Tom Hiddleston and director Alan Taylor (HBO's "Game of Thrones") about the process of finding a successor to the first film's director, Kenneth Branagh; shooting in Iceland and England; and an Oscar-winner getting the case of the giggles.
Film Journal International: Unlike with the first two Iron Man films, which were both directed by Jon Favreau, Thor director Kenneth Branagh didn't return for the sequel. As an actor in a franchise, did you find that of any concern?
Tom Hiddleston: He's someone I like and respect, so initially, of course, when I found out he wasn't coming back I was sorry to see him go. But I completely understood Kenneth's reasons—it was simply that there were many, many other things that he wanted to do and he felt that he had poured himself into the first film, that he'd put all his eggs in that basket and hadn't saved anything up for a sequel. And when I heard that Alan—whose work I'd seen on "Game of Thrones"—was going to direct the sequel, I understood the connection; I saw what Kevin Feige had seen in him. He brought his own sense of the visceral reality of the world of an ancient race.
Natalie Portman: It was obviously sad that he wasn't coming back—Ken is always such a wonderful director to work with. But Ken obviously moved on to other projects that he's doing amazingly with. And Alan was so wonderful; it was really great to work with him and he did a great job. He is a really lovely guy and also a very, very smart man. It was wonderful to be around him.
FJI: It took Marvel Studios a long time to choose a director. In October 2011, they announced Patty Jenkins [Monster], who left after a month or so due to "creative differences," starting the process all over again.
Alan Taylor: The process for me was funny because when they first spoke to me about it, I was directing "Game of Thrones" in Belfast. I had one conference call with them and then I had to drop out of consideration because "Game of Thrones" was taking over my life. Then I heard that they had hired somebody, Patty Jenkins, and I thought, "That's a really cool choice—a radical, out-of-the-box choice." Then I went and finished that season of "Game of Thrones." Then around Christmas , almost the end of the year, I got another call that they were looking for a director for Thor 2, which was all very confusing for me because I thought that had been all settled. And it happened I had just finished the season of "Game of Thrones" just as they were looking for a director for the second time. So I missed the drama. I didn't know what was going on; all I knew was that she had signed up and was gone, and that they had talked to at least two other directors from "Game of Thrones," because clearly they have a thing for that show.
Portman: Alan has such a sense of spectacle and knows how to make these epic visuals. He also comes from a background in philosophy, so every decision for a character and for the story has philosophical background to it, which is really interesting to be around.
Taylor: I was anxious to meet Natalie since she came on late, after we'd been shooting for a while, because her schedule was very tight. There was no warm-up time and we just had to go right into it. And she was great. She was laughing and enjoying herself—she's like a thoroughbred, very responsive to any directorial input and able to nail it with no fuss at all.
Hiddleston: Chris [Hemsworth] and I had been working for about six weeks before Natalie came on to it, so we were already in our stride. It had been a while for her, because she had made Thor and then took some time out to start a family, so she hadn't been on a big set recently, and was like, "Oh yeah, I remember this…"
FJI: Here's a film set with classically trained British actors but also a recent Oscar-winner in Natalie. As a director whose three previous features were independent films without major stars, Alan, did you worry about keeping control and authority on a movie of this scale?
Taylor: It's funny, and there are various levels of it, but there's a movie-star dynamic that you worry about because in some ways they can handle it any way they want to handle it, and if you get somebody who's just a difficult person, you're stuck with that. There's also the issue of somebody who's really, really advanced at what they do—are they going to be impatient with the director's input? But my experience with the best—and actors like ["The Sopranos" star James] Gandolfini and Natalie, who are both really good at what they do and would be on that list—is that they tend to be a joy to work with. They tend to be sane and to enjoy the work and the process, which includes interacting with the director in a productive way.
Portman: I remember [on my first day] we were shooting exteriors in London that were matching for [scenes shot earlier in] Iceland, so there was all this dirt on the floor and they were throwing me around—it was that final faceoff scene with Malakith—and of course it was freezing outside and I was in my little sleeveless dress. It was a nice welcome back. [laughs] But it was all fun.
Hiddleston: I got to know Natalie during prep for Ken Branagh's film and then doing publicity for it, and then we got to work together [on this film], and she is a delight. There was also something about playing a particular dynamic between Loki and Jane, a weird mutual distrust and fascination. I think [the scene where Loki and Jane Foster meet in Asgard] was our first scene together; it was very playful and really fun. She has a great energy on set; she keeps it very light.
Taylor: I'd had time to meet and hang out with Chris Hemsworth and most of the rest of the cast, so I knew them a little bit. There wasn't a single person who was difficult or a pain in the butt. That's a huge issue when you're trying to relax into making a movie—not having to walk on eggshells around anyone because you know they're all great people who are just trying to work hard.
FJI: What was the first day of shooting like?
Taylor: We started with something that was very physical—the battle action at Vanaheim [the home of Thor's comrade Hogun and the film's second battle scene]. Lots of extras, lots of horses, on location with lots of special effects, stuff blowing up. That's some of my favorite stuff and I think worked out very well, but I went into that anxious because of the sheer scale. But it turned out that's not the hard stuff.
FJI: What was the hard stuff?
Portman: There was one day when Chris and I had the giggles, and that's really one of the worst things that can happen, because as soon as you start trying to stop, it just makes you laugh even more. It was frustrating because it seemed as though we should be able to stop, but it was just hard. It was the scene on the balcony when he tells me about the worlds aligning and puts our hands together.
Hiddleston: There was a day when [Chris and I] were on the spaceship when we're escaping Asgard. It was three days before Christmas, so there was an element of last day of term, and of course we're on set in a great, monolithic grey structure, which is the spaceship itself but it's entirely stationary and we're staring out at the great expanse of blue screen and there was such a lightness to the scene anyway…
FJI: You guys were doing Hope and Crosby!
Hiddleston: Basically! [laughs] So we got the giggles on that. And actually, sometimes it gives a scene a life that's just what it needs.
FJI: So nothing physically taxing? Natalie, you looked like you were doing wirework at a couple of points.
Portman: Yes—all that sort of psychedelic stuff when I'm going through the [mystical energy] Aether and later when Malekith lifts me up. I had done some [wirework] for the first Thor when [our characters] flew together, and on Your Highness. It's pretty fun.
FJI: How about shooting in what looked like—and I mean this in the nicest possible way—Godforsaken Iceland.
Portman: I actually didn’t go to Iceland. They put all my stuff in after. I was shooting the [Terrence] Malick movies [Knight of Cups and another whose title has not yet been announced] when they were in Iceland.
Taylor: I shot in Iceland for the first time on "Game of Thrones" and loved it; there's just something about the place—it seems like everybody who goes there is affected by it. I shot "Thrones" there in the winter and made use of the incredible snowy landscapes and was dying to come back and make use of the landscapes we had never been able to shoot before during the summer. And I felt like part of my input was to try and ground the fantastical realms as much as possible, so going on location for the home planet or the home realm of our villains was important, rather than doing green screen. So we went there and shot in these incredible black volcanic valleys that people have been using a lot in films these days.
Hiddleston: We shot a lot of the exteriors for The Dark World on a volcano in Iceland. One of the most fun nights—I think the middle Saturday night that we were there—was when we went into Reykjavik, where you can, of course, walk down the street and bump into people who are actually named Thor! And Zachary Levi and Chris and I, the boys of Asgard, walked by a Café Loki…
FJI: Tell me you took a picture of it.
Hiddleston: I did indeed, wearing some fetching yellow ski pants because it was minus-five degrees. Then we went dancing. It was quite fun. One of the most amazing things, though, I have to say, was seeing the Northern Lights. I'd never seen the Northern Lights before. As I said earlier, we were shooting on a volcano and we ate at a lodge at the base. And the lodge exists, basically, for people to come all year round and watch the Northern Lights. I was thinking, “This is one of the most amazing privileges that comes with being an actor—I'm allowed to see this…the Dark World itself!"